Fallout 4 gets me through the holidays

I have been playing Fallout 4 for several months now. The holidays are very stressful for me, so I decided to pick up some creation club add-ons to spice things up.

My last play thru, I sided with The Minutemen against the Institute, took on The Brotherhood of Steel, and freed the traders in Nukaworld. Minutemen vs. The Brotherhood is a spectacular way to finish the main quest line. Also, removing the slave collars from the traders caused everyone’s outfits to glitch, turning Nukaworld Bazaar into a nudist colony. Enjoy your freedom you kinky bastards!

This time thru I sided with The Railroad. The quest line is ok, if a bit stressful. There were moments where I thought I had accidentally backed The Institute.

I also picked up the sentinel power armor addon, the settlement ambush kit, and some of the free armor and weapon skins. I normally don’t go for DLC, but it was a little Christmas present to myself. Skinning armor is nice because it unifies the paint scheme for disparate pieces of armor, which makes your outfit look nice even though the pieces are mismatched. Surprisingly, it’s not that big of a deal for my player character, but it’s nice when outfitting settlers and provisioners. Putting Minutemen or Railroad logos on mismatched armor helps me to not accidentally shoot friendlies during raids. Seeing an armed person walking down the road in Minuteman armor is nice from a role-play standpoint. Like order is being restored to The Commonwealth.

The Sentinel Power Armor

The Sentinel armor is interesting in that it effectively adds a second companion. Much like how Skyrim let you have both a dog and a human companion, this lets your “pet” be a full suit of power armor. You can equip it like a companion, and it’s default weapon is full auto laser rifle. Probably the best feature is the personality mode, which lets you choose between the Protectron, Assaultron, or my personal favorite: Mister Gutsy. My nickname for him is “War Machine.”

Having a companion with you long term can get annoying when you hear them say the same things over and over, especially Preston’s judgmental ass criticizing me for picking up scrap. You know that sniper scope on that bad ass rifle you carrying? I made it with junk I be scavenging. I put this shit to good use, Pres, so shut up. The Mister Gutsy personality option doesn’t talk much, it just mostly accuses all hostiles of being Communists. It’s pretty awesome, except when I am trying to creep up on a target to back stab it and he suddenly yells “IS THAT SOMEONE THAT NEEDS ME TO KICK THEIR ASS!?!?!”

You can load the sentinel up with gear too, but once it’s been outfitted with a full set of power armor, his carry capacity isn’t great, and it’s a pain accessing the menu for it, so I just use it in extreme emergencies. Also, the sentry armor doesn’t get damaged the way that wearing power armor can, so there is way less to maintain. Putting a companion in power armor sounds good in theory, but they get shot up and you end up repairing their shit all the time. I am not sure if the quality of the armor matters for the sentinel, so I just throw basic armor with Minuteman or Railroad paint on War Machine and roll out.

My current play thru is on “Very Hard” mode, which means that a lot of enemies could one-shot me at the lower levels. Having a War Machine with me is nice because he rushes in to the fight and draws out enemies so I can snipe them from a covered position. He repairs himself, but not very quickly, so it’s possible for him to get shutdown, and you have to physically access his console to jump start the repair process. This is different than having a robot companion that you can use a repair kit on. It’s not as fast as using a repair kit, but it doesn’t take any materials. Once you get used to his cover fire, you can notice real quick when he and the companion are down, because suddenly everything is shooting at you.

Automatron

Speaking of robot companions. I think that my favorite expansion is Automatron. I am a sucker for pet robots, and building a robot to protect a settlement is one of my favorite things to do in the game. I especially love the Mister Handy torso, and using it to make my own varieties of Mister Handy, like one with giant caliper hands and pincer legs that I call “Mister Pinchy”, or one with giant saw blades for hands and buzz saw legs that I call “Mister Slicey”. Other models include “Mister Shooty” who has minigun arms, and “Mister Tradey” who has all of the storage mods, and works as a Provisioner.

I also built a Sentry Bot for The Castle that I named “Sarge” after the malfunctioning robot in The Castle basement. I wish you could repair him specifically so that he could have a real personality. But he looks pretty cool rolling around The Castle keeping his big red eye on things. The other thing that would be great is to put faction paint on robots. Mister Shooty would look pretty awesome with a Minuteman paint job.

Once you have done the Mechanist quest line, you end up with Jezebel as a kind of settler. She refuses to interact positively with you, so while you can assign her to jobs at a settlement, and she will do them, she makes a lousy shop keeper because you can’t buy or sell anything. She just complains about you. I just put her to work at Graygarden as either a farmer or security. I would send more robots to live and work at Graygarden, but I think that having a bunch of companions at one settlement is a waste. I like to send Codsworth to live there, until Ada shows up, then I send him off to another settlement. I guess I could return him to Sanctuary and send Preston to The Castle, but I kind of like having Preston at Sanctuary for some reason.

I don’t know if having multiple companions at a settlement affects how many settlers that you can attract, but I like to wait until a settlement is maxed out population-wise before I add robots. Companions seem to make better security personnel than regular settlers, so that is the job I usually give them. Good security becomes a major deal when you start provoking raids with the Settlement Ambush Kit.

Settlement Ambush Kit

The settlement ambush kit adds a couple of cool things. You can add walls and a special guard tower to your settlement, which makes defending it a lot simpler because your guards stay in one place, rather than roaming around. You can also add remote view video cameras that let you kind of fast travel from one site to another without actually leaving. A funny glitch with the sentinel armor is that it will physically go to the site you are viewing, so switching camera views makes War Machine run all over the place to stand in front of your camera.

A really cool feature of the kit is the ability to send out fake distress signals that trigger raids. So far I have only fired it up once, but it just sends wave after wave of raiders to your settlement, and it keeps score of how many waves you have survived. I am assuming there is one for ferals as well, but I haven’t tried it yet. I re-rolled my character not long after getting it and right now my settlements are ill-equipped for a massive raid.

The Tipping Point

Now that I have done two full re-rolls, I can say with relative confidence that the game balance shifts when your character level hits the mid 40’s. If you have been doing settlement building and Minutemen quests consistently, they should be producing caps, food, and salvage to the point that you are crafting most of the things you need (oil, adhesive, stimpaks) and mostly buying ammo, aluminum, and steel. My first play-though went over 100th level, and the game was fairly easy to play at that point. I had settlements that had nuclear reactors, multiple industrial water purifiers, and laser turrets protecting everything. The main story line can put you in front of Kellogg pretty quickly, and he can be really tough to beat at low levels. Having multiple combat perks combined with high end weapons and armor make a big difference.

I think a challenging play through would be to use no companions or Sentinels, and to skip the Minutemen all together. You will still end up with settlements, but you probably wouldn’t have nearly as many. I might try that when I re-roll again, supporting either the Institute or the Brotherhood of Steel. I think that both of those factions also want some form of settlement, so you may end up with them anyway.

My Life with Multitops: using multiple types of laptops

It’s the end of the year, and I have a lot on my mind. So rather than deal with it, I am going to write about laptops. I have owned many laptops over the years, most of them have been refurbished or re-purposed from some other role. In many ways, I am a bit like a crazy cat lady, but instead of cats, I am surrounded by laptops. I tend to own and operate a few laptops because I have a few specific use cases with different hardware requirements. Rather than calling them laptops, I like to refer to them by the purpose that they serve for me.

  1. TypetopA big laptop that is suited for long typing sessions. In the past I wrote (and hacked, and coded) a lot more than I do now. I used to write papers for school, reports or emails for work, blog posts, or creative works. While my ideal writing environment is an office chair, large monitor and a buckling spring keyboard, any table with laptop that has a full-sized keyboard will do. I don’t consider these large and rather heavy machines to be mobile so much as portable. Of my fleet of laptops, the ones optimized for typing also tend to be the most expensive. This is the model that I normally go for when an employer is picking up the tab.
  2. NotetopA tiny laptop that is suited for note taking. I have spent many hours in lecture halls and the like taking notes for classes. I don’t really use a laptop for notes at work, unless I am the designated minutes-taker, for example when I worked at a startup company out west, or in my time on the board of directors at Hive13. For class room notes, nothing beats a small netbook, especially if you are also carrying around textbooks and paper notebooks. I found that the accessory pocket in a backpack kept the laptop from being smashed by textbooks. It’s too bad that the iPad pretty much destroyed the market for cheap netbooks, because I dearly loved those old MSI’s.
  3. JettopA burner laptop for travel. I used to travel to hacker conferences like DefCon, and you would occasionally need a laptop, but there was always a chance that something awful might happen to it. It might get stolen, it might get confiscated by law enforcement at an international border, it might get hacked by someone with way better skills than mine, or someone [like me] might drunkenly vomit on it or throw it out of a window. To minimize this risk, I would take a cheap laptop with minimal personal information and strong encryption. Once I started carrying a smartphone, I would also travel with an old flip phone, just to be safe. Later on, I would just take my work phone and turn off WiFi and Bluetooth. In later years, I bought a refurbished Chromebook and traveled with it. I found that a Chromebook along with a small Android tablet combined to make a good, lightweight, toolkit.
  4. ShoptopA laptop for hardware hacking. In the years I spent with Hive13, I was always in need of multiple ports to connect to things around the shop. I would use multiple serial or USB ports to connect to hacker hardware like Arduinos or old copiers and printers. Even today I occasionally need to plug in multiple large external hard drives to share pirated goods at events like 2600. In the past, I have found older laptops to be indispensable in these “workshop” environments due to their legacy ports. For me, workshops are also fairly dangerous places, where laptops get exposed to power tool mishaps, fire, and on more than one occasion, blood. It is these dangers, combined with a need for old ports, that I prefer to keep older laptops around, however under-powered they may become. I am not sure what I will do in the future, when even my eldest laptop has only a couple of USB ports. I suppose that a shoptop is the kind of thing that I should probably build myself. I keep wanting to get back into electronics, maybe a DIY shoptop would be a good way to get started.
  5. CrashtopA laptop for network configuration and troubleshooting Pretty much always the secondary function of a shoptop, looking into network crashes pretty much always requires a laptop. For a dude that tinkers with computers, I like to think that I have a decent grasp of networking. Not just cabling, but also routing, switching and even telephones. My home network is as much a lab as it is anything else. My main router has a console port, and while most of the network configuring I do is with SSH or a browser, sometimes you just need a laptop that you can physically plug in to a device. Of all the legacy ports to disappear from a modern laptop, I will miss the gigabit Ethernet port the most. Sure there are USB serial and Ethernet adapters, but those just aren’t the same as having the gear built right in. Also like the shoptop, I often think about either building a device, or maybe refurbishing a vintage device to troubleshoot networks with. I have always wanted a very industrial-looking 80’s device like the old Informer 213 for terminal-type stuff. At one point in my life, I had an old laptop that had a voice modem in it so that I could also mess with analog telephone lines.
  6. I am not in the market for a new laptop just yet. My typetop plays Skyrim and Fallout 4 decently. Plus it’s time for me to get into consoles again ๐Ÿ™‚

Being Addicted to Fallout 4

In the past, I have written about playing video games to cope with depression. It’s that time of year again, so I am playing games a lot. I basically love 4 kinds of games:

  1. Open world RPGs with various factions, families, and morality systems (like Skyrim or Fable)
  2. First-Person Shooters with engaging single player stories (like Half-Life)
  3. Farm management games with community, friendship, and/or romance dynamics (like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley)
  4. Tower Defense games where you manage funds/materials/etc to build steadily stronger fortresses
  5. Pretty much anything where you have robot minions

Fallout 4 is basically a turducken of these various game elements. It’s pretty much the most addictive thing I have ever encountered. Imagine a dish made by the guys from Epic Meal Time, using only ingredients provided by the guys from Breaking Bad. Fallout 4 is basically things I like about Skyrim, dialed up to 11.

I picked up the full Fallout 4 suite on a ridiculous Steam sale a few months ago, and I have spent pretty much all of my non-sleeping, non-working, and non-child-rearing hours playing it. I know the game is like 5 years old. My gaming hardware is also 5 years old. Fight me.

In Skyrim, I loved helping kids and dogs. I basically forgot about the dragons and focused on amassing gold in order to build a house for everyone. Then it turned out that Lucia is afraid of the swamp where I built the house, so I had to win a civil war for her so we can live in peace and safety in Windhelm.

Well, in Fallout 4, not only are you searching for your lost son, you meet Dogmeat within the first 10 minutes and he’s way more bad ass than Meeko. I did a ton of work to ensure that Dogmeat was safe at Sanctuary Hills, under the watchful eyes of Codsworth, while I searched for Shaun.

Another thing I loved about Skyrim was meeting, marrying, and traveling with Mjoll the Lioness. She was a total bad ass, and so she and her dude Aerin come to live with me, the kids, the dog, and the House Carl in some kind of weird Nordic polyamory version of The Brady Bunch.

Well, in Fallout 4, I was able to seduce Preston. We took on the raiders, ferals, and supermutants of the commonwealth while building settlements together. *Then* I was also able to seduce Piper, Curie, and Hancock. I was like some kind of post-nuke/pan-sexual version of Captain Kirk, getting in fights with and/or boning robots and shit. Again, taking something I liked from Skyrim and turning the volume up to 11.

As much as the memes liked to dunk on Preston for never shutting up about helping settlements, settlements fucking rule. Which is the other way that Fallout 4 got me: Building. Fucking. Farms. I set up a bunch of settlements, planted crops to feed the settlers, and built shacks and shit for them to live in. Oh, and I surrounded them with automated turrets. There’s nothing greater than hearing on the radio that a settlement needs help, just to fast travel there and watch the attackers get shredded by my sentries.

Life in The Commonwealth is much easier when you have large supplies of ammunition and caps. A holdover from my Skyrim days is my tendency to sneak about, shooting targets from a distance. My survivor is a decent sniper, but he really only gets to clip a couple of targets at proper sniper range. After that, he has to creep up a bit closer. At sniper range, I like to use a .50 cal hunting rifle. While closing the gap I like to use a custom .308 combat rifle that I call “Quickshot.” It’s great for putting things down with two or three rounds, and it’s silenced. If I have time to line up a headshot, like in VATS, I can put most things down with one round. The problem is that .50 and .308 ammo is kind of rare so I am constantly purchasing it. One way to make lots of caps and to buy ammo at a discount is to set up vendors at the various settlements. I put up a weapons stand and I can usually buy 50-100 rounds of .308 every couple of days. Every time I come to a settlement to drop off salvage, I hit up the emporium for .308, .50 cal, and shotgun shells.

I tend to hoard .45 and 5.56mm to hand out to settlers that work security. I build out combat rifles and assault rifles for the provisioners and settlers assigned to guard posts and to scavenging stations. These dudes get my hand-me-down weapons and armor, as well as stuff I’ve looted off of Raiders. When a settlement gets attacked all of the settlers will run to fight, so it doesn’t hurt to outfit even the farmers with armor and upgraded weapons. When you are 80th level or so, your settlements can have like 20 people in them, so that’s a lot of gear to be handing out. There are like 20 settlements in the Commonwealth proper, plus the ones for Far Harbor and Nukaworld, which means that the endgame for me is all about dealing arms to your peasant militia.

Another luxury item to have is large amounts of salvage. Most vendors will let you buy large shipments of salvage for a thousand or more caps. When you are maxing out the defenses of a settlement, or building lots of robots, you tend to run low on aluminum, steel, and oil. One way I get steady access to lots salvage is to set up trading emporium at my settlements as well. This lets me buy salvage in bulk. One particular item that you need tons of is adhesive. You can craft vegetable starch at a cooking station by combining corn, mutfruit, and tatoes. So putting folks to work farming these items at your settlements is important. Once you have a large supply of vegetable starch, you can sell off the excess that appears in your workshops. Once your local traders are out of caps, you can go to the Diamond City Market to unload the rest. If you set up a clinic, you can also buy bloodpacks which you will need to make stimpaks. Depending on your selection of perks, you can keep your survivor going on just stimpaks.

The other advantage of numerous settlements is provisioners. With the Local Leader perk, you can add a settler to a trade route. This lets you share the salvage that you have with all of your trading settlements. Provisioners will then walk the roads between their trading settlements on a regular basis. Obviously, this is very handy for building out new settlement, or for getting supplies to smaller settlements, but there are two other advantages:

  1. If you find a provisioner out in the wild, you can dump any excess items or salvage on them, and the items will eventually find their way to a settlement workshop.
  2. If you arm and armor a provisioner, he or she will engage the random spawns that happen out on the road, making The Commonwealth a tiny bit safer for you and your other settlements. I tend to use Sanctuary Hills and The Castle as my main trading hubs. It’s funny when a random attack happens on one of these places when there are half a dozen traders standing around. It’s like having extra security. Building custom arms and armor for provisioners and settlement security is a good way to safely earn XP as well. If you combine building settlement stuff with crafting while abusing the “well rested” perk, you can level yourself a bit without getting killed constantly.

The morality system is fairly strict as well. I have rolled back a game more than once because I chose poorly at a critical juncture. I will go back through and play the other way, as a bad guy or whatever, at some point. I must have played through Skyrim a dozen times trying to create the perfect play thru, or at least as perfect as I can get it before something bugs out ๐Ÿ™‚

I am on my third re-roll, each time siding with the Minutemen, working with the Railroad, and against the Institute and the Brotherhood of Steel. I also decided to wipe out the gangs of Nukaworld. Nukaworld is great fun, even if you are being a good guy. Although taking on the gangs does feel a bit genocidal at times.

Network File Systems and VMs: old school Unix meets the new school virtualization

I have been replacing low end servers with virtual machines for a while now, and it’s been kinda rad. In a previous post I mentioned replacing a physical server with a VM for Bittorrent. The results were fantastic.

The typical problem with BT is that it devours bandwidth and gets you busted by Hollywood. The other problem is that it also devours disk space. I solved the first problem using Swedish Internets, but my disk problem was actually exacerbated by using a VM.

In the past, I would just throw a big drive into a dinky little Atom CPU box and snarf torrents all day. When I set up my Proxmox cluster, my VMs were still using local drives. For a while, my Turnkey Linux Torrent Server VM had a 500GB virtual disk. That worked ok. I would grab videos and whatnot and copy them to my NAS for viewing, and once I seeded my torrents back 300%, I would delete them. This was fine until I set up a RetroPie and started grabbing giant ROM sets from a private tracker.

Private trackers are great for making specialized warez easy to find. The problem is that they track the ratio of what you download compared to what you upload, and grabbing too much without seeding it back is a no-no. I now find myself grabbing terabytes of stuff that I have to seed indefinitely. Time to put more disk(s) into the cluster.

I spent way too much money on my NAS to keep fretting about the hard drives on individual machines, virtual or otherwise. So the obvious choice was to toss a disk in and attach it to the VM through the network. I like using containers for Linux machines because the memory efficiency is insane. My research indicated that the best move with containers was to use CIFS. I couldn’t get that to work, so I went with the tried and true way: NFS. NFS is really the way to go for Unix to Unix file sharing. It’s fast, and fairly easy to setup. It also doesn’t seem to work with Proxmox containers, because kernel mode something or another… based on the twenty minutes I spent looking into the situation.

So I rebuilt my torrent server as a VM, and used NFS to mount a disk from my NAS like so:

In the /etc/fstab on my torrent server I added this line:

192.168.1.2:/volume2/Downloads /srv/storage nfs rw,async,hard,intr,noexec 0 0

Where –

  1. 129.168.1.2 is the IP address of my NAS
  2. /volume2/Downloads is the NFS export of the shared folder. I have a Synology, so your server config will probably be different.
  3. /srv/storage is the folder that I want the torrent server to mount the shared folder as. On the Turnkey Torrent Server this is where Transmission BT stores its downloaded files by default.
  4. The rest of the permissions mean it’s read/write and that basically anyone can modify the contents. These are terrible permissions to use for file shares the require privacy and security. They’re fine for stolen videos and games tho.

Once that is in place, you can mount it:

mount /srv/storage

And you’re set.

Because the disk is on my NAS, I can also share it using CIFS, and mount it to my Windows machines. This is handy for when I download a weekly show, I can watch it directly from the Downloads folder and then delete it once it’s done seeding. I like doing this for programs that will end up on Netflix, where I just want to stay current, rather than hanging on to the finished program.

This worked out so well that I decided to spin up a Turnkey Linux Media Server. For this little project, I basically duplicated the steps above, using the folder I have my videos shared on. So far, I have it working for serving cartoons to my daughter’s Roku TV, and my Amazon Fire Stick. I have plans to set the Emby app up on the kid’s Amazon Fire Tablets soon, once I figure out the app situation which is probably going to involve side loading or some other kind of Android fuckitude.

Of course, my media files aren’t properly named or organized, so I will have to write a script to fix all of that ๐Ÿ™‚

UPDATE: During the holidays, the private tracker in question did an event where you could download select ROM sets for free and get a bonus for seeding them, so the brand new disk I bought filled up and I had to buy another. I couldn’t migrate a single disk to RAID0, so I had to move the data off the disk, build the new array, and then move the data to it. An operation that took something like 36 hours for 4TB via USB 3.

Also, not being able to use NFS with a container is apparently a Proxmox limitation that has been remedied in the latest release.

Adventures in Proxmox Part 1: Words About Boxes

The Proxmox logo
It’s been a few weeks since I exorcised HyperV from my life like an evil demon. I have replaced it with Proxmox and so far it’s been mostly great. With a couple of serious caveats.

Plastic dinosaurs betraying each other.My transition to Proxmox has been a rather involved, not so much because Proxmox is hard to set up (it’s not), but because I am tired of slapping old junky hardware together and hoping it doesn’t die, and then scrambling to fix it when it inevitably betrays me. Unlike most dudes with home servers and labs, most of my acquisitions were made years ago to support an MMO habit. Specifically multiboxing.

PC case made from peg board.

I call them “computers” because they are computers in the sense that they have CPU’s, RAM, and HDD’s. But they were low-budget things when they were assembled years ago. The upgrade path works something like this:

  1. A computer begins its life as my main gaming machine that will run my favorite game at a satisfactory speed and resolution.
  2. Then I find a new favorite and upgrade the gaming machine’s guts to run the new game.
  3. The old gaming guts get transplanted in to my “server” where they are *barely* able to run a few VMs and things like that.
  4. The final stage is when the server guts are no longer up to the task of running VMs. I then add a few old network cards and the “server” then becomes my “router”.
  5. The old router guts then get donated somewhere. They’re not really useful to anyone, so they probably get shipped to Africa where they get mined for gold and copper by children at gunpoint.

Breaking the [Re]Cycle of Violence
Wall-E holding a pile of scrapIn the years since then, I have taken to playing epic single player games like Skyrim. These games really only need one machine. The rest of the gear I used to run little “servers” for one thing or another, which I have slowly replaced with VMs. The problem with using old junky computers as servers is when you run them balls out 24 hours a day. In my search for a replacement VM host, I spent a lot of time researching off-lease servers. My goal was to have 8 cores and 32gb of ram, with the ability to live migrate VMs to another [lesser] host in an emergency, something that my HyperV setup was lacking. After a lot of consternation, I decided that since a single VM would never actually use more than 4 cores or 8gb of RAM, why not use 2 [or more] desktops?

A room full of old PCs.I found some old off-lease quad-core Intel desktops for about the same retail price as a low end server processor. I used the RAM from my older gaming machines/VMservers and some hard drives from some old file servers to build out my “new” Proxmox cluster. With two quad core desktops running maxed-out memory(16GB each) I managed to satisfy my need to be like the other kids with “8 cores with 32GB of RAM” for about the price of an off-lease server chassis, with the added bonus having a cluster. The goal is to add nodes to grow the cluster to 16 cores and 64GB of RAM, while also adding clustered storage via Ceph to make use of old hard drives from file servers.

New hot servers is old and busted. Old busted clusters is the new hotness.
For me, the clustered model is better, in my opinion for a number of reasons. It mostly has to do with modularity:

  1. You can build out your infrastructure one paycheck at a time. Part of the problem with off-lease servers is that while the chassis is cheap, the components that go in it are expensive and/or hard to find. The deal with servers is that the cost of the motherboard and CPU are nothing compared to what you will spend on RAM. I was looking for something I could start using for less than $200, and a refurb desktop and RAM from old gaming boxes got me going at that price point.
  2. Desktops stack on top of each other for free. I don’t have any server or telco racks, so in addition buying ECC RAM, I would also be buying a rack, rails, and all of the other stuff that goes with them. This would easily eat up my $200 startup budget before I powered on a single box.
  3. Moar boxes == moar resiliency. My gear at home is part lab and part production environment. Yes, I use it to hack stuff and learn new things, but my family also uses it in their daily lives. Network shares stream cartoons; VOIP phones connect friends; keeping these things going is probably as important as my day job. Being able to try bold and stupid things without endangering the “Family Infrastructure” is important to my quality of life.
  4. Scaling out is probably more important than Scaling Up. A typical I.T. Department/Data Center response to capacity problems is to regularly stand up newer/more powerful [expensive] gear and then dump the old stuff. I guess this is a good approach if you have the budget. It certainly has created a market for used gear. I don’t have any budget to speak of, so I want to be able to increase capacity by adding servers while keeping the existing ones in play. There are still cost concerns with this approach, mainly with network equipment. In addition to upping my server game, I am going to have to up my networking game as well.

It works…ish

I have my two cluster nodes *kind of* working, with most of my Linux guests running as containers, which is very memory and CPU efficient. I am running two Windows VMs, PORTAL for remote access and dynamic DNS, and MOONBASE which I am using for tasks that need wired network access. All of my desktops are currently in pieces, having donated their guts to the “Cluster Collective” so I am mostly using my laptop for everything. I am not really in the habit of plugging it in to Ethernet, or leaving it turned on, so for now I am using a VM in place of my desktop for long running tasks like file transfers.

I say that the cluster is only kind of working because my home network isn’t very well segmented and the cluster heartbeat traffic straight up murders my little switch. It took me a while to figure out the problem. So the cluster works for a few days and then my core switch chokes and passes out, knocking pretty much everything offline. For now, the “cluster” is disabled and the second node is powered off until my new network cards arrive and I can configure separate networks for the clustering, storage, and the VMs.

Coming soon: Adventures in Proxmox part 2: You don’t know shit about networking.

Da Mystery of Multiboxing – A brief tale of Automated Heroics Inc.

I have long been a fan of playing Massively Multiplayer Online games, but I really don’t like MMO gamers because they tend to be jackasses. At the time my MMO of choice was City of Heroes, which was popular with teenagers. Needless to say, the jackass factor was high. The game is best played with others tho, so I was often stuck playing with jackasses. You do what you gotta do to unlock those badges.

My gaming experience was sub optimal. So, I did what any hacker does when he is confronted with a problem: I started hacking. I found that I could multiplex keyboard commands through some networked software and came up with a workable multibox solution. The trick was it needed multiple computers. So I cobbled together some old desktops to make barely-passable gaming machines. At one point I had 8 of them running. It took a half hour to get all my bots logged into the game and another half hour to enter an instance, but being able to play on superhero teams where everyone did what I told them to do was sheer joy. My group was all robot-themed and my supergroup was called “Automated Heroics Inc.” and all of the player-character bios read like product descriptions in a catalog. I also had macros programmed so that all of them could do “The Robot” in sync. It was hilarious. Why didn’t I get any video of that?

Multiboxing can be tricky because each MMO is different about how it handles its controls, sessions, authentication, you name it. In the case of CoH, running multiple instances of the game on the same computer didn’t work well. It was fine if I alt-tabbed between the sessions and controlled the toons manually, but having sessions in windowed mode made them crash. The software that I used, Auto Hotkey, worked well when testing scripts with notepad windows, but when it came time to run them with CoH, it was shit show.

So I decided to keep AHK, but I used some junk PCs and old video cards to run the game. AHK has some networking features that let you push groups of keystrokes out to clients, so that if I pressed ‘0’ on my main PC, it would send a series of key presses and pauses to the other 7 machines. Because I am writing this several years after I did the project, I no longer have any of the files I used. Also CoH has been shut down for years, so example code wouldn’t be all that useful even if I had it. Here are a few things to consider though:

  1. Hopefully your game has a free-to-play or freemium option so that you can set up multiple accounts for not much money. Running just one bot toon is way different from a tactical standpoint than running seven of them.
  2. Hopefully your game has an auto-follow function, where you target a player and your toon moves whenever and where ever the target goes. This is so important for moving all of your bots in an orderly fashion.
  3. Hopefully your game has an assist or auto-target function, where you target a player and your toon targets that player’s target. Much like the auto-follow feature, assist keeps everyone shooting at the same thing. I found that concentrating fire on the big critters first was the most effective way to initiate combat. If you time it right, you put them down fast and then mop up the minions.
  4. If you have both auto-follow and assist, then you can round up your bot crew by mapping a key to tell each bot to target you, follow you, and assist you. Being able to get your toons to focus on you is an essential function because targeting can cause your bots to do dumb things like take off running or shoot at the wrong thing. On my “main” pc, I mapped this script to the same key that I used to target the enemy closest to me.
  5. Multiboxed toons work best with ranged combat, especially area of effect attacks. You will want your crew to be mostly squishy DPS types and dudes that can heal and buff squishy DPS types. My bot crew was entirely ranged. I called them “The Firing Squad.”
  6. An AOE that is centered on the player (A Player Based Area Of Effect, PBAOE, in CoH parlance) is great for mopping up a mob once it has closed distance with your crew.
  7. Another great use is AOE heals. Even if they’re weak, you can have two or more toons dropping their heals as part of their attack sequence. Often, your toons will either have a PBAOE attack, or a PBAOE heal. If you are dropping PBAOEs when the enemy moves into melee range, you will likely need AOE heals too, so just have everyone drop them at once.
  8. I mostly used my bots to level my support toons that were hard to solo, like controllers and tanks. It’s decent practice for keeping a team alive, but it’s not the same skill at playing with real humans.
  9. Multiboxing isn’t about playing an indiviual bot toon well. It’s about using the entire group of bot toons to support your main toon[s]. There are some key differences between playing a main toon vs. playing a bot toon:
    • Your bots will probably never be alone, so there’s no need to balance offense with defense. A “real” toon needs to be well rounded, bot toons are highly specialized insects.
    • Your bots should have two basic specialties: shooting or healing. They should be going pew pew pew or heal heal heal pretty much all the time.
    • Putting up shields and other buffs can be a pain to script but it’s worth it: Targeting a team member, drop one or more buffs on them, target the next team member, etc.
    • There will be multiple buffers dropping different buffs, so don’t focus so much on making each buff powerful, focus on making each buff mana/energy efficient with short cool down periods so you can lay them down fast and often. Once the buff process is scripted, running it between each mob isn’t a big deal.

In CoH, there were two character classes, the Corruptor and the Defender that both combined blasting stuff with healing and buffs. The Corruptor’s primary power set was offense and the secondary power set was support, while the Defender was the exact opposite. A third class, the Blaster, was exclusively focused on offense. I had two Blasters, four Corruptors and one Defender. The corruptors could buff everyone up before a fight, then my main toon would pull a mob, the bots would open fire, and if the mob got close, I had the Blasters drop their PBAOE blasts and then the Defender and the Corruptors dropped heals. The benefit of their damage abilities was obvious, but the shields and heals were equally important for helping to level my tank and controller. At higher levels, the bots all had a sniper-type attack that was long range, accurate, and did lots of damage with a long cool down timer. I could generally have everyone target a mob’s boss/lieutenant and drop him in order to pull the rest of the mob. I would then use my tank or controller to tie up the mob while the firing squad picked off minions one at a time. If anything survived that and actually made it to melee range, I would drop the PBAOE blasts, AKA “The Nukes”, along with the heals. The stragglers then got picked off by the firing squad and we rebuffed and took on another mob.

The things you learn about keyboards
Getting your bot toons to do things involved creating macros for each toon to execute certain actions, noting the times that certain animations took, and then mapping those macros to shortcut keys and using AHK to script the key presses for those shortcuts. You have to learn a lot about your game’s behavior, but you also have to learn about keyboards.

Keyboard behavior plays a major part in getting your scripts right. I had the hardest time getting my bots to do simple things like run because I didn’t understand that pushing a key down, and letting go of it are two different events. It was so hard to get those bastards to run, that I ended up relying on the auto-follow feature for basically all movement.

It’s hard to imagine all of the realtime events that go into pressing keys on a keyboard until you have to simulate key presses with software. One thing I wanted to do make the bots do was spread out so that they didn’t all get hit with enemy AOEs. I never did get it right, so I just kept everyone close together and used lots of heals.

I miss all my robot minions. I hope that some day a similar MMO will emerge that will let me rebuild Automated Heroics Inc. so I can record some goddamn video of my dancing robots.

The Nintendo Switch, or how I learned to stop worrying and learned to love buying consoles

The Nintendo Switch is out and I am pretty pumped about it. I haven’t purchased one yet, so my exuberance may wane a bit once I do.

My preference for video gaming systems is much like my political affiliation: I pretty much hate everything.

I love video games, but I am normally not fond of video gamers. As a community, the toxicity is palpable, so the online experience just isn’t a factor for me. I prefer to play video games with people that I know in the real world, so for me the Playstation and the XBox are roughly equal, and the Nintendo has a real advantage over the others.

In my mind, Nintendo is a completely different category of gaming from the PC, XBox, or Playstation. In time, I usually end up with all 4 systems. I just usually wait for a few years to pick up the current PS or XBox. As of this writing, I still don’t have an XBone or PS4 and I am thinking about skipping them. Sure there are exclusives that I could be missing, but honestly, I don’t really care. I still play tons of Skyrim, so I am not really missing much.

The reason that I think of Nintendo as a wholly different platform than all others is that the Nintendo pushes the envelope for hardware, not necessarily for video games. Sure, they have a roster of characters, and a few franchises that you can bank on for release on new platforms. The craziest example has to be controlling a game with bongos.

While bongos were probably the riskiest idea, the Wii had to be the most successful. The idea of using movement to interact with a game was duplicated by every other console. The Wii U added the ability to use the tablet to play “real” console games that ran on another machine, essentially ushering in the idea of streaming games. The nVidia shield and it’s various competitors owe Nintendo for introducing the concept to the living room. Now Nintendo is taking its act on the freeway?

I know it’s easy to dismiss the Nintendo as gimmicky, and targeted at kids. I play a fair amount of Nintendo games with my kids. A common Friday night activity at our house for the two older kids was popping a bunch of popcorn and the whole family playing Mario Party or Mario Kart. Now I am looking forward to the day when we can do the same with the two little ones. Just because the stable of characters is popular with kids doesn’t mean that it’s not a serious platform. Nintendo’s decision to make the tablet the center of the gaming experience is an interesting one. I am eager to see the long term effects it has on gaming and computing.

I can’t praise Nintendo’s bold visions without also talking about Microsoft’s lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, I like the XBox, it’s well executed and represents the height of console gaming design. The MS vision is many things, but it is not bold. MS seems to prefer taking known entities and perfecting them, much like Apple does with mobile phones. Playing shooters or fighting games on the XBox is great, but the price point for that experience is extreme. The XBone is still around $250 even though it’s pushing 4 years in age and an upgrade is on the horizon.

Cub Linux as a kid’s computer

zoey_compOne of the things that my daughter wanted for Christmas was to be able to play some of the web games she’s seen on TV. I have a strict policy about not letting anyone touch any of my computers, so I rehabilitated an old HTPC for her to use.

The PC portion was mostly incidental; her main gift was her cool keyboard, cool mouse, awesome Pepa Pig headphones, and of course, her game subscription.

The donor PC was an old Intel Atom box with 2gb of RAM. This basically made Windows impossible. I toyed with the idea of using Lubuntu, but then I came across Cub Linux. It’s basically a lightweight version of Linux that boots to the Chromium browser. It’s like an [more] open source version of Chrome OS.

Getting the machine setup was fairly straight forward. I set it to auto-login and to go to sleep after a half hour. She knows how to turn the monitor off, that’s good enough for a 4 year old. I also installed VNC media player so she can watch cartoons that I have downloaded for her.

I almost always install Samba on Linux machines because it makes it easy to move files from Windows. The process is documented fairly well here. I just shared out the home directory like before so I could put videos in the Videos folder.

old_linux_screenieOne problem with kids’ computers, especially for kids that are learning to use a computer while also learning to read, is that they need constant assistance. I use SSH for the low level operating system stuff, but a lot of it is just her not yet knowing what to do when something pops up on the screen. So I decided to share the desktop so I didn’t have to get up and walk over to the PC just to click OK or type in a password. One of the best tools for remote access to a Linux desktop is VNC.

VNC is a technology that I have been using off and on for years. I even used it on Windows in the NT and Win2K days before RDP basically obsoleted it. Every now and then VNC comes in super handy.

There are a number of ways to set up VNC, and a number of packages that deliver its functionality. Basically, you can run multiple X Window servers that let multiple users have graphical desktops at the same time. It can be super confusing for Windows users, so bear with me. Unix is multi-user. It’s meant to be used by multiple people at the same time. These users may be sitting at one or more physical consoles, virtual consoles, or remote shells. VNC is one way to get a graphical (window that you click with a mouse) console remotely on a system. You start a VNCserver on a given display x (:1, :2, :3. etc.) and then connect a VNC client to it on TCP port 509x (5091 for :1, 5092 for :2). Multiple users can run multiple servers and launch pretty much any number of graphical shells.

octopod_screenieVNC is awesome, but a kid computer is seriously single user. What I need is to be able to pull up her Linux desktop on my [often] Windows desktop, without any intervention from her, and without getting up from my desk. She is still learning to use a computer, so I want to demonstrate things on her screen. Not getting up from my desk is important because she needs assistance fairly often. Also, I happen to be a lazy slug.

Fortunately, there is a tool for doing this known as X11VNC. The key difference for X11VNC is that it shares the physical console display, :0, which is the display of the user sitting at the keyboard. This is ideal because when I connect to her computer, I see what she’s seeing, and either of us can type or move the mouse.

To set up X11VNC, I first had to get the software installed from repos:
sudo apt-get install x11vnc

After you’ve installed it, you want to create a remote access password and then edit the config to start at boot. I use the same password for the remote session that I use to log into the user account. Thanks to the auto login, no one but me should ever have to type it in.
sudo x11vnc โ€“storepasswd /root/.vnc/passwd
sudo nano /etc/init/x11vnc.conf

Then paste this into the editor:

# description "Start x11vnc on system boot"

description "x11vnc"

start on runlevel [2345]
stop on runlevel [^2345]

console log

respawn
respawn limit 20 5

exec /usr/bin/x11vnc -auth guess -forever -loop -noxdamage -repeat -rfbauth /root/.vnc/passwd -rfbport 5900 -shared


Then you can use any VNC Viewer to access the desktop remotely by entering the IP for the computer. My personal favorite viewer is tight-vnc.

With the remote access portion set up, I am now able to help her with her computer without getting up from mine. She has discovered that we can both type on the same computer at the same time, so a game has emerged. One of us types in a text editor and the other tries to delete what the other has written. It’s a race to either type or delete gibberish and she laughs like a maniac when we play it.

The Drama With My New Laptop: the High Cost of Saving $350 (part 2)

This post contains a lot of profanity. Like a shitload.

When we last left our heroes, I had finally gotten Windows working on an SSD after trying a bunch of things, and then basically giving up and then reinstalling everything. Now that the SSD was working, the time had come to encrypt the SSD.

I am a fan of block crypto. I encrypt lots of things, not because I am worried about the government seizing my gear (well, not *that* worried) but because gadgets get lost and stolen. I lost my mobile phone a couple of years ago, and if I hadn’t encrypted it, it would have been nerve wracking worrying about what someone might do with the data that’s on it. So rather than worry about what is or isn’t protected, I just encrypt the whole drive. Full drive encryption is important because Physical Access is Total Access. I have rescued untold amounts of data for others from their crashed or otherwise misbehaving hard drives by removing them and plugging them into a different computer. I don’t normally encrypt the drives on my gaming rigs because if the FBI or whomever needs my Goat Simulator game saves that badly, they are welcome to them. This was a special case because it’s a gaming laptop. My rule is that if it leaves the house, it has to be encrypted.

Modern computers use UEFI to “securely” boot the operating system. I guess this is a security measure to prevent someone from booting your laptop from a CD and stealing all your shit, but since this laptop doesn’t have a Trusted Platform Module, Secure Boot doesn’t protect you from someone plugging your drive into another computer and stealing all your shit, I think it’s more trouble that it’s worth. If you have to ask Windows for permission to boot off a CD, it’s just going to stop the user from doing what he or she wants, it will not stop Proper Villainy(tm).

My favorite disk encryption tool, TrueCrypt, vanished under mysterious circumstances. I won’t get into the conspiracy theories behind its demise, but I have decided to keep encrypting my drive, and that leads me to the next chapter of this saga, where I get punished for using the basic version of Windows.

Part 2 – Solid State Drama’s Revenge

I prefer to run Windows on laptops because of all the bullshit proprietary hardware that goes into them. I am probably showing my age here, but there was a time when hardware support in Linux was spotty. I have swapped out Intel WiFi card for an Atheros cards in laptops to make sure I can do packet injection, but I now have a dedicated Kali laptop for that sort of thing. For my daily driver/EDC laptop, life is just easier with Windows. I know that that fucking with Linux makes a lot of dudes feel superior, and they probably are. For me, I prefer to use Linux for specific tasks (i.e. Kali and Clonezilla) or for servers. With that being said, I am not such a Windows fanboy that I care about the differences between Windows versions. My personal laptop won’t be joining an Active Directory domain, so I just go with whatever version came with my laptop, which I replaced with whatever version MS let me download when I migrated to the SSD.

This path of least resistance philosophy led me to entertain thoughts of using BitLocker to encrypt my hard drive, only I am not running Windows 8.1 Professional or Enterprise, so I guess that BitLocker isn’t included with my version. There is no fucking way that I’m forking over $150 for a new version of Windows after working so hard to save $200 on the RAM and SSD. No TrueCrypt? Fine. No BitLocker? Whatever. I don’t give a fuck. I’ll just use a fork of TrueCrypt called VeraCrypt. Well, VeraCrypt’s boot loader doesn’t play nicely with UEFI and GPT partitions. It only works on MBR disks. feelsbadman.jpg

So after days of messing with various tools to get Windows working on my SSD, and then enduring the hassle of setting up Windows all over again, and waiting on my Steam library to download again, I am faced with yet another hard disk challenge: converting my GPT partitioned drive to MBR without deleting anything. Honestly, now that Steam is in the Debian repos, I am sorely tempted to make my next gaming rig run Linux.

I tried a bunch of things and ended up using the pirated AOMEI tool to do the conversion, and it worked, sort of. The drive booted, and VeraCrypt didn’t bitch about GPT anymore. However, when I went to back up the drive one last time before encrypting it, I discovered that AOMEI half-assed the conversion. According to Clonezilla, my drive had some remnant of the GPT boot stuff left on it that I had to fix with the Linux version of fdisk for GPT, a.k.a gdisk. I have screwed up plenty of working partitions with fdisk, so I was nervous to say the least. Also, the magical -z option that I needed to was buried in the “expert” menu section (AKA Here There Be Dragons!) which added to the danger. Clonezilla said to run gdisk -z but -z isn’t a valid option from the command line.

I read this tutorial to figure out what had to be done, and in the end I just closed my eyes, clenched up my butt cheeks, and hit enter. I got it working, and thankfully I had already made plenty of backups, just in case. Speaking of backups, I should find a way to make running Clonezilla easier…

Update 8/16 – A few months ago, I tried migrating to Win10, but it was a shitshow. I just pirated Win10 Pro (thanks to KMSPico portable, JFGI) and used BitLocker without a TPM. This was less stressful since I set up easy bare metal backups in Part 3.

Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in Part 3 – Making Backups Easy to do is Hard ๐Ÿ™‚